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This week, I found myself taking part in something I typically try to avoid: a public debate on Facebook.
It wasn't about politics but another hot topic these days: the flu.
My friend posted that she was still undecided on whether she should get a flu shot. I was surprised. We're in the midst of a flu emergency here in Boston: 700 cases of the flu have been confirmed so far this season — that's 10 times the confirmed cases during last year's entire flu season. My co-workers are dropping like flies. And despite this being only the second year I can remember getting the flu vaccine in my adult life, to me it seemed simple: get the vaccine, reduce your risk of getting sick.
But for some, it's not. Here are some of the arguments I've come across:
Argument 1: "The vaccine isn't all that effective."
Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, told us last month that while a variety of studies have come out recently looking at this issue, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine is hard to measure.
"There are a lot of studies that came out over the last five to ten years, many of which were not very rigorous methodologically, and showed very rosy numbers for the efficacy of the vaccine. And more rigorous studies came out more recently showing that it’s not as good as we thought it might be."
One of those recent studies was a report from the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. It found that while the flu vaccine provides more protection than being unvaccinated, it is less effective than most routinely recommended vaccines. It also asserts that the perception that the current vaccine is highly effective is preventing the development of better flu vaccines.
“The safety profile is actually quite good. But we have oversold it," the center's director Michael Osterholm told the New York Times. "Use it — but just know it’s not going to work nearly as well as everyone says.”
Argument 2: "It's too late now."
Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Infectious Disease Bureau, says it's not too late to protect yourself.
“There is time for people to still get vaccinated and they should get vaccinated,” Barry said. “Even if it doesn’t completely prevent you from getting influenza, we know that it will result, in most people, in less severe illness.”
Flu levels typically don't peak until mid-February, but know that it takes two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection against the virus.
Argument 3: "I got the flu from the vaccine once."
Though it is common to get muscle aches or a mild fever after your flu shot, you can't catch the flu from it because the injectable vaccine carries dead flu virus. (See argument 5)
Argument 4: "Vaccines contain mercury."
Multiple-dose vials of the flu vaccine do contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. While there is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of thimerosal in vaccines, the CDC stands by its safety.
That said, single-dose units of the flu vaccine and the nasal spray are both made without thimerosal.
Argument 5: "I know people that get the shots and still get sick."
It's true: You can still get the flu even if you get the vaccine.
As NPR reports, while the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, it's not perfect. It takes two weeks for its protections to kick in and:
The vaccine is only about 60 percent effective. So some people can get the flu even though they were vaccinated because the shot just didn't work for them. The vaccine, for example, tends to work less well in the elderly.
And while the CDC says this year's vaccine is well matched to fight the most common strains circulating this season, Dr. Robin Colgrove of the infectious disease division of Mount Auburn Hospital told us he is seeing more confirmed cases, using the rapid antigen test, in people who've been vaccinated than normal.
"Those cases have been mostly mild cases and it may be they have partial protection from the vaccine," Dr. Colgrove said.
Argument 6: "I'm healthy, I don't need the vaccine."
Anyone who gets the flu can experience complications. And while you might not be concerned about getting the flu, others around you could be — especially if you spend time around those at high risk for getting the flu like, according to the CDC, older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions.
The CDC says the vaccine tends to work less effectively in seniors, who are also at the greatest risk for developing serious complications as a result. Not getting vaccinated means there's a higher chance you could end up spreading the virus to others.
My own take away: While the vaccine isn't perfect, it still lowers your risk of getting or spreading the virus. Either way, getting the vaccine is a personal decision, or as one of my Facebook friends put it: "It's up to flu."
Have any other arguments for or against the flu vaccine? Tell us in the comments.
This program aired on January 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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